Aamir Khan in the very first episode has shown society the mirror, but perhaps we also need to investigate what lies behind the mirror, says Satyen K Bordoloi
The most surprising thing about Satyameva Jayate is Aamir Khan. The star who is otherwise so inaccessible, has suddenly become someone you cannot escape even if you want to.
What with his program being shown at the same time in eight channels and viewers being subjected to a countdown as if something earthshaking was about to happen.
To begin with, one has to give in to the marketing genius of the man, the star… who in his quest to brand himself as the "socially conscious star" has finally nailed it.
Yes, Aamir Khan indeed shows the society the mirror, exposing the hypocrisies of the educated middle class. Yet, to get the true picture we will have to see the other side of the mirror.
First, however, let’s look at what Aamir Khan wants us to see.
Star Plus has got the formula right with the social issue based series. With the right dose of stardust added by a popular actor, virgin to television, they have successfully glamorised an issue. And despite a bit of sensationalism, the format of interviews with story based footage works well for an audience perennially seeking "entertainment" from their idiot box. You won’t be "bored" a minute in the hour and a half you sit to watch an episode.
Obviously, Aamir maintained an element of mystery with regards to the series. If he had shared the format beforehand, the eagerness over it wouldn’t have been so strong. And there’s reason why the promos of the second episode do not openly talk about the issue, though for a discerning viewer it is plain obvious that it is about gay and lesbian issues.
This first episode did many things, most importantly it showed the middle-class India a mirror they have not yet seen.
In one section, people are asked where they think female infanticide happens. The answer is: amongst rural, tribal, poor, illiterate people.
It must have come as a surprise to most that it actually happens mostly in educated, urban middle-class and upper class households. When it comes to the illiterate "backward" tribals, one doctor remarks, there’s no sign of female infanticide and Aamir Khan wonders what else we have to learn from these people.
If you were to pick up the overarching truth after the debut episode, it is that almost everyone in the society is guilty for its evils; for this episode – female infanticide.
And in case we are good enough to not consciously or unconsciously harm anyone, then we are guilty of being bystanders to the crime. Because as a saying goes, the world is what it is not because of bad people doing bad things, but good people watching them and doing nothing.
Thus, you, I and the system we either help create or tolerate is what is to be blamed for the mess around us. If there is one truth that prevails after the first episode, it is this.
And in that, the episode and the format, works like a charm with this mix of Oprah and Jerry Springer.
You are shown the problem, you are shown the human face of it and in the end you are shown some success stories against the injustice. Then at the very end, you are even given an opportunity to participate in rooting out the menace by sending a postcard to someone (the CM of Rajasthan in the first episode).
The middle class hypocrisies are rightfully exposed as you shed some tear and it seems like a win-win series for everyone.
Not quite, the other reflections in the mirror are not so beautiful.
Among the three victims who Aamir Khan interviews in the first episode, there is the story of Parveen Khan from Madhya Pradesh whose husband literally chewed off her face because she had been unable to bear boys. Humans, even the most criminal of our lots for whom death and murder is common, are not barbaric enough to do something as brutal as chew off the face of another live human being as if it were a piece of cooked meat.
Sadly, television and sensationalism have always been bedfellows. It thus takes a lot of guts and understanding of subtle things to refrain from sensationalism in TV, something which evidently from this example is missing in Aamir Khan and the Star Group.
No matter what the issue, there are always examples which are so extreme they are way beyond the fringe of even human imagination, thus becoming extreme, bizarre exceptions. One thus should not make the mistake of making these exceptions appear as if they were common especially when one is generalising as one is in this series.
To show that story in an episode where you are generalising an issue for the masses, to show that one incident from thousands of incidents which the researchers would have obviously encountered during their research, stems of extreme insensitivity and shows another malice that grips the TV industry.
Did Aamir Khan not have confidence in the issue he is tackling that he had to resort to this form of sensationalism?
That woman and her husband are from the minority Muslim community. Anyone who has done research will tell you that the rates of female infanticide in the Muslim community - though on the rise in the recent past - is lesser because their religious scriptures not only decry this activity, but even decry the act of celebrating the birth of a boy over a girl. Thus to show female infanticide in that group does two things -- one, it shows that female infanticide exists in this community which is correct. Then it gives Hindu right wings fundamentalists another chance of painting the community in the colours of backwardness and brutality.
What makes it worse is that it comes right in the first episode, after the largest overdrive of promotion any TV program has even seen. This gives strength to the Hindutva right-wing activists of the country who will point out the brutality of the community they are always attacking.
Not only is the gravity of the issue lessened by this sensationalism, it also further helps marginalise the community. The question any right thinking individual needs to ask them is whether they did not have any other example from the community than to take this rarest of the rare example. One only hopes that the team becomes conscious of their own biases to show better care in future episodes.
When Aamir Khan expressed his support for the agitators of Narmada Bachao Andolan after the release of Rang De Basanti and a month before the release of Fanaa, a lot of controversy was raised as the Hindutva forces of BJP and VHP turned their swords against him and though it was not said, his "Indian" identity was questioned because his religion was Islam.
Thankfully, he had the sense, intelligence and strength to defend himself and his stand by saying that he was saying exactly what the Supreme Court had maintained. That round went to Aamir. However, he was cleaned bowled by the civil society.
The civil society thanked him for his support to the cause and asked him why, if he was such a conscientious and aware citizen who was concerned about the rights of the marginalised, did he continue the endorsement of the cold drinks giant Coca Cola who are accused of ruining the livelihoods of thousands of villagers in various states of the country by taking over their water.
Aamir, caught in his own "justice trap", said that he will look into it, but did not give up his endorsement of the product.
Thus he knows how to brand himself and come out as the conscientious, well-meaning star right near the release of his films even when at other times he is absolutely silent when it comes to political issues.
During the breaks of the first episode of Satyameva Jayate, the "social" ads by Coca Cola played on in a continuous loop, showing happy children, which is in sync with their school campaign. Even if you ignore the affected villagers, one cannot ignore the simple fact that by this ad and the school campaign they are trying to sell Coca Cola to school children, for whom the drink is harmful.
Another ad that did the rounds was of Reliance Foundation, run by the richest housewife in the country, Nita Ambani who with her husband commissioned the richest house in the world (worth $ 2 billion – the size of the Indian film industry) to be built in a city where over 70% of the people live in slums, often in inhuman conditions. This ad was about creating happiness in the country by providing medical facilities
While both Coke and Reliance would indeed be doing these things they claim in their advertising, the amount of money both make by their cut-throat competition and destruction of natural resources is thousands of times more than the money they give to bring happiness to children or healthcare to a few hundred citizens.
It is like the doctors that are being talked about in the episode, whose day job is to save lives but their night job is to kill female foetuses. The former good act does not absolve them of the latter crime, just like these acts by Coke and Reliance does not absolved them of theirs.
Thus this subtle attempt to legitimise themselves on the back of a show that talks about the problems of the country is akin to corrupt people building temples to legitimise and make their black money white or of a company destroying a forest full of hundreds of thousands of trees and planting a hundred as CSR activity. If Aamir Khan was indeed that aware and sensitive, he’d not have allowed either Coke or Nita Ambani anywhere near the shows ad space.
One should also not forget that the show is ultimately about making money. Financially, it is literally the largest, biggest and most expensive show in the history of Indian television with its promotions surpassing any done for any films or TV series in this country ever.
Aamir Khan is making a lot of money and so is the Star Group. And one additional benefit for Aamir is that he is consolidating his brand as the "socially conscious" Khan in the industry beyond all expectations.
Thus, every Sunday for the next 15 Sundays, we will sit back for an hour and a half and watch ‘social issues’ being brought straight to our lovely middle-class drawing rooms, write postcards, and delude ourselves with the happy feeling of doing something about the society and our nation just like we deluded ourselves when we took part in Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movements.
Real change is not brought on by showing them on TV, but by people getting mad enough to do something about it in real life.
Can Aamir Khan succeed in making you mad despite the other reflections in his mirror?
We will know only if one Sunday you switch off the TV right in the middle of Satyameva Jayate, and instead of his tailor made "jaadu ki chadi" solution, you think up a "real" one of your own. And put it to practice.
All the best to Aamir Khan. And to you.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the website.
Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. He reviews films for the wire service Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).
His photographs and writings on cinema, art and culture have appeared in many national and global publications both print and online.